Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 74

Supplementary submission from GeneWatch UK

  The Committee has requested evidence on Lord Drayson's proposal that the UK should make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation to favour those areas in which the UK has clear competitive advantage.

GeneWatch UK welcomes the Committee's call for evidence on this important issue. Our responses to the Committee's questions are below.

Q1.  What form a debate or consultation about the question should take and who should lead it

  GeneWatch strongly welcomes the Committee's suggestion that there should be public debate and consultation about investment in science and innovation, and whether or how this should be prioritised. Some key principles for effective participation have been highlighted in the EC-funded report "Participatory Science and Scientific Participation", which has already been circulated to members.1 However, one of the key findings of this report is that there is no point consulting if there is no intention of actually changing decisions. The exact mechanisms for public engagement in decision-making are irrelevant when people are well aware that major decisions are being taken long in advance of any public consultation: this must be addressed if debate is to be meaningful.

The Government has been committed to a "knowledge-based economy" since 1997. This has included a secret commitment to building a genetic database in the NHS since at least 1999. Hidden choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation were made more than 10 years ago, when a small circle advisors from the biotech and nuclear industries were appointed to various government "competitiveness" task forces.2, 3 The same people advised the Government to throw away any old-fashioned ideas about policy evaluation and to treat anyone who questioned anything as "anti-science" or "anti-technology".4

  These people aim to achieve:

    —  surveillance of entire populations (the "database state");

    —  control of the world's food supply (via patents on seeds, plants and animals); and

    —  control of the world's energy supply (including uranium and coal).5

  Examples of exaggerated promises include:6


  The idea of screening people's genes and targeting lifestyle advice or medication at people who are "genetically susceptible" was invented by scientists funded by the tobacco industry, who wanted people to believe (falsely) that lung cancer was in their genes.7 It has since been backed by the pharmaceutical, food and private healthcare industries, who want to expand the market for medication and new "functional foods" to rich, healthy people. However, genes are poor predictors of most diseases in most people and no common genetic variations exist which meet medical screening criteria.8


  The widely promoted "cancer preventing" genetically modified tomato, contains enhanced levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin. Claims about health benefits have been based on a single study conducted in mice. Yet a recent Cochrane review of medical evidence found that most early studies of better tested antioxidants had been wrong and that there was no evidence of benefit and some evidence of harm. The claims about the tomato have been criticised by Cancer Research UK,9 scientists at the FSA and the NHS.


  GM Golden rice—the much-hyped solution to vitamin A deficiency in children—was only donated to poor farmers after two major clinical trials (published in 1994 and 1996) found that its main ingredient, beta-carotene, increased the risk of cancer in smokers and asbestos workers. Its advocates have never properly assessed either its benefits or its potential harms.

In December 2007, former Chief Scientist Professor Sir David King admitted that a project he had claimed was using GM crops to help farmers in Africa, was in fact not using GM plants at all, but agro-ecological farming methods.10

  In this context, it is not surprising that the Science Horizons project identified a "striking trust deficit" and found that some people saw expert priorities for research investments as inevitably not the same as those of the average citizen.11, 12

Q2.  Whether such a policy is desirable or necessary

  Governments and companies have always influenced decisions about the balance of investment in science and innovation. Lord Drayson is being more open about these commitments in order to secure more subsidy, now that it is clear that Government's massive investment in a biotech economy has been an expensive failure. The increased transparency is welcome, but accountability is lacking.

Research by the Harvard economist Professor Gary Pisano—conducted before the current economic crisis—has shown that even floated biotech companies, let alone small spin-out companies backed by venture capital, have brought no benefit to the global economy, and without the largest US company, Amgen, have overall made steady losses for over 30 years.13 He concludes that "it is virtually impossible to find other historical examples, at least at the industry level, for which such a large fraction of new entrants can be expected to endure such prolonged periods of losses and for which the vast majority may never become viable economic entities". The entire industry was built on convincing venture capitalists that Intellectual Property (IP) could be bought and sold independently of the final product—leading to George Poste's infamous claim that "genes are the currency of the future" (followed by lobbying by him and others for the adoption of gene patenting in Europe). The expansion of the patent system is widely recognized to have stifled innovation and most biotech's are expected to go bust because they have no products.

  Drayson's latest idea is to pour yet more money into exploiting electronic medical records linked to DNA (another idea first proposed by Poste). This would be a disaster for health, for the NHS and for the privacy of the entire population.14

  It is therefore highly undesirable that the Government continues to pour money down the biotech drain without any kind of independent assessment of the unsubstantiated claims that this will deliver health benefits, save money or kick-start the economy.

  However, this does not mean that the Government should not make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation—it already does. What needs to happen is for these decisions to be made more democratic and accountable.

  The overall effect of the policies adopted to promote the knowledge-based economy has been to weaken accountability for significant investments in research and development, which are determined neither by free markets (which have rejected GM foods and nuclear power, and are likely to reject human genome sequencing), nor by democratic institutions.

  Our previous submission to the Committee's inquiry highlighted the issues that need to be addressed.

Q3.  What the potential implications of such a policy are for UK science and engineering, higher education, industry and the economy was a whole

  If decisions continue to be made by a narrow circle of vested interests, this is likely to exacerbate the damaging trend towards "hypothesis-free science" and the creation of a technocratic education system, at the expense of theory.

For example, it is possible to demonstrate that the complexity of biology and the important roles of choice, chance and social, economic and environmental factors in complex diseases put real limits on the predictability of complex diseases and the likely utility of genetic "susceptibility" testing, using existing data.8, 15 But this requires some theory, rather than the type of genetic research that can be done by robots.16

Q4.  Were such a policy pursued, which research sectors are most likely to benefit and which are most likely to lose

  If decisions continue to be made by a narrow circle of vested interests, they will continue to decide who wins and loses—except this trend will be exacerbated by an even stronger concentration of public money in the biotech, nuclear and surveillance sectors (borrowed at the expense of future generations, who will have to deal with the social and environmental legacy and repay the debt). Sectors likely to lose out are the same ones that lose out now, ie anything that does not contribute to the three aims outlined above (control of personal data, DNA and the health market; control of global seed supplies; control of global energy). Examples include: agro-ecological faming methods and public health research and anything that requires actual thinking or learning as opposed to data-mining.

REFERENCES1  Participatory Science and Scientific Participation: The role of Civil Society Organisations in decision-making about novel developments in biotechnologies. November 2008. http://www.participationinscience.eu/psx2/final/PSX2_final%20report.pdf

2  GeneWatch UK (forthcoming) Bioscience for life? Who decides what research is done in health and agriculture?

3  GeneWatch UK (2009) Bioscience for life? Appendix A. Available on: http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/UK_Biobank_fin_1.pdf

4  Poste G, Fears R (1999) Joining up for the genome. Times Higher Education Supplement, 19 February 1999. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=145155&sectioncode=26

5  Management changes could be key to ENRC's future. The Times. 26 March 2009. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/markets/article5977562.ece

6  GeneWatch UK (2009) Response to Brown's science speech. Press Release. 27 February 2009.

7  Wallace HM (forthcoming) Big Tobacco and the human genome: driving the scientific bandwagon? Submitted to Genomics, Society and Policy.

8  Wallace HM Genetic susceptibility to disease. Encyclopedia of Life Sciences. In Press.

9  http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2008/10/27/purple-tomatoes-wont-beat-cancer/

10  Poulter S (2007) Scientist who claimed GM crops could solve Third World hunger admits he got it wrong. Daily Mail. 18 December 2007. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-503339/Scientist-claimed-GM-crops-solve-Third-World-hunger-admits-got-wrong.html

11  http://www.sciencehorizons.org.uk/resources/1652_SH_Scenes_Mind%20&%20Body_AW.pdf

12  Dialogue by Design (2007) Science Horizons: Deliberative Panel Report. September 2007. http://www.sciencehorizons.org.uk/resources/sciencehorizons_deliberative_panel.pdf

13  Pisano GP (2006) Science Business: The promise, the reality, and the future of biotech. Harvard Business School Press.

14  GeneWatch UK (2009) Is "early" health good health? The implications of genomic data-mining in the NHS. April 2009. http://www.genewatch.org/uploads/f03c6d66a9b354535738483c1c3d49e4/Data_mining_brief_fin.doc

15  Wallace HM (2006) A model of gene-gene and gene-environment interactions and its implications for targeting environmental interventions by genotype. Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, 3 (35), doi:10.1186/1742-4682-3-35.

16  Smith L (2009) Robot scientist "Adam" solves genetic problems. The Times. 3 April 2009.

April 2009

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